Yasiin Bey's Sonic Intervention Brings Music Closer to Art

Nadine Khalil, Ocula, April 22, 2021

I first encountered Negus, an immersive sound intervention by actor and musician Yasiin Bey (AKA the rapper Mos Def), at Art Basel Hong Kong in March 2019, a time that feels far in the past.

In a moment of respite from the hype of an overstimulating mega-fair, I gazed at a KAWS sculpture in the slow-moving waters of Victoria Harbour while Bey's smooth sonic textures played in my ear. 'The waves so still, birds on a wire,' he sang.


Presented by The Third Line gallery and Sole in Dubai, Negus, which was first recorded in London in 2015 and produced with Lord Tusk, Steven Julien, and Acyde, takes shape differently in each city it is taken.


First played in Marrakech at artist Hassan Hajjaj's riad, Negus has also been installed at the Brooklyn Museum with artworks by Ala Ebtekar, Julie Mehretu, José Parlá responding to it (15 November 2019–26 January 2020). As the music can only be heard in real time, Bey indirectly comments on the nature of listening, streaming, and distribution of the industry.


The 8-track 28-minute recording's latest outing has been a five-week sojourn at The Third Line (28 March–5 May 2021). In order to access the music, your phone is secured in a Yondr fabric pouch, which closes with a proprietary lock upon sealing, before you enter the gallery space with a pair of wireless headphones from which spare musical arrangements emanate.


'Take space, I take my time,' Bey repeats while a video projection flickers with X-ray-like perspectival views of the globe, the atmosphere, the sea, and desert. Dubai's skyline appears with the glittering Burj Khalifa as well as ancient ruins, sacred rituals, and people around the world congregating in prayer.


'Bathing, breathing and dreaming. I travel so far, feel at home . . . I keep starting my sentence.' There's an intimate quality to Bey's languid tone, who, through this experiential platform, seems to be returning to a time when we listened to entire albums instead of tracks.


Although Negus will not be released via any digital or physical form, it recalls an analogue medium, except the music cannot be rewound or fast-forwarded.


The versatility of the sound moves from jazz influences, 1980s electro and reggae instrumentation, to improvisational whistling and deep bass overtones. This is clearly not a hip hop album intended for public delivery. Rather, it presents an eclectic encounter with hearing music; one in which sound colours what you see.


The experience is emphasised by artworks exhibited around the work at The Third Line, which move from Laleh Khorramian's abstract, swirling 'Landscape' series (2016) and Ala Ebtekar's cosmologies to Nima Nabavi's triangular formations in degradations of radiating lines, and the architectural clearing in the forest that is Anuar Khalifi's Maqam Negus __(2021) (maqam designating the system of melodies in traditional Arabic music).


Although these curated works seem incidental to the musical conversation, there is a clear thread in the video that's part of this Negus iteration, in Bey's collaboration with Ibrahim Attalihi—a frequent collaborator who designs Bey's audiovisual backdrops for the stage.


With found footage sampled from the internet and abstracted through the subtraction of colour, the moving images are seen as negatives. A map is being drawn and buildings are in a state of demolition appear when Bey asks, 'Hey professor, what do you mean by the term modern world?'


He then replaces 'world' with 'civilization' and 'industry' as a stampede of elephants makes its way across a savannah and building renders rotate like turning tops. 'I see heaven, sun and stars, they say they have a supermarket on Mars,' continues Bey.


Negus is accompanied by Bey's graffitied crates and a video of his brooding lyrics, with interventions by Futura, recontextualising the different elements of his sonic composition.


While as a performative gesture Negus isn't quite accentuated by the art that surrounds it, the material elements of the ephemeral experience constitute a form of radical listening that's powerful, even if it cannot be owned or replayed. Though limited in reach, Negus offers an alternative perspective on how to render music in an art context.


From the Ocula website.